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University: University of Leeds
Degree: History and politics
Family and divorce is very much a people-focused area of law. Family and divorce lawyers deal with diverse legal issues including marriage, civil partnerships and unmarried couples, cohabitation, separation, divorce, financial claims and the now common pre and post-nuptial/ civil partnership agreements. Work on matters relating to children also form a big part of a family lawyer’s daily caseload. Family and divorce lawyers are often litigators, but also negotiate out-of-court settlements. Family law cases often grab the media headlines, particularly when they involve people with high wealth or high-profile personalities. While the role of a family lawyer calls for an astute legal mind, strong communication and pastoral skills are also needed to support clients through often difficult times.
Adam Cooper always knew that he wanted to work with individuals and, despite preferring history at school, he always had a legal career at the back of his mind. “I wanted to have the chance to establish a relationship with the client,” he explains, and family law offered the ideal opportunity. During his training contract with Blake Morgan, Adam decided against any particularly corporate or finance-heavy seats in order to focus on private client sectors. Motivated by the fact that “every client you see is different and every case varies”, he found that the family law team offered a nurturing environment for trainees: “You hear about firms where trainees are treated like work horses, but I felt I was given tasks to help me develop.” Being based outside London also helped. “There’s a different focus in regional offices,” he observes. “They’re important in their communities.” However, that is not to say that trainee life is easier outside the capital. “The work was challenging,” Adam recalls. “But I was well supported. The focus was on helping me to develop professionally.”
The department continued to offer a natural progression for Adam after he qualified. When it comes to the day-to-day tasks of a family law solicitor, “the starting point is divorce, but that is very much a starting point”. With a case load spanning marital finances on separation to child contact disputes and issues arising from the relocation of a parent, there is always something new to learn. “I’m still learning from colleagues every day,” he admits; with such a broad range of disputes, “cases and clients can go various ways”.
What’s more, the profession is changing. With the evolving face of the modern family, Adam acknowledges that “there’s an increase in work for cohabiting couples”. Considering that such individuals do not enjoy the same rights as married couples, his team often has to apply different aspects of the law.
"Attention to detail and a good understanding of the law go hand in hand with the softer skills of being client-focused. You need to understand what the client’s going through, but also to look at it objectively"
One particular Supreme Court case is being closely watched by family law practitioners around the United Kingdom. At present, “there are five facts to petition for divorce”, Adam explains, “and couples are often forced to find claims of unreasonable behaviour”. But Owens v Owens has raised serious questions around what constitutes ‘unreasonable’. “There’s a growing campaign for a no-fault divorce,” he enthuses. Those working in family law anticipate that the Supreme Court’s decision in this case, which held that a wife must remain married to her husband, could lead to big changes in the sector.
Firms mean business
Despite these noble aims, Adam remains cautious. “You might have the best intentions to help people, but you still have to meet targets and bring in billable hours,” he warns. There is a significant difference between studying the law and its developments academically and working in a legal environment. “You know this in principle, but it’s about making that work in practice.”
Joining Blake Morgan as a paralegal before starting his training contract helped Adam to make that transition. Having already invested in the firm’s culture, he was able to hit the ground running as a trainee. Understanding the demands of the workplace needs more than just in-house experience, though. “Having experience of how other businesses or sectors run really helps,” Adam stresses. “Working in other businesses helps you to understand companies and their motivations.” And if there is one thing that budding solicitors should bear in mind, it is that law firms are businesses. With a background teaching English to adults abroad and working at a small company, for Adam, wider work experience has been essential. “Firms are looking for the ‘right fit’. They want good academics, but not necessarily the top grades.” Finding your place in a firm takes the right personality, then. “Firms want to employ a well-rounded person, someone who will contribute to the office”, he elaborates. The key question is: “How do they interact and how committed are they?”
Balancing empathy and professionalism
Succeeding in family law is as much about approachability as it is about competence. “Attention to detail and a good understanding of the law go hand in hand with the softer skills of being clientfocused,” explains Adam. “You need to understand what the client’s going through, but also to look at it objectively.” Although compassion is vital in a family law solicitor, “you also need to be able to give bad news”. Ultimately, it comes down to “finding a balance between being a professional and remaining empathetic”.
Children law work is especially tough, but the rewards of undertaking it are all the greater. Reflecting on his achievements so far, Adam reveals that he recently acted to secure the return of a young child, who had been removed from the client’s care against a court order. “It was a delicate situation,” he says, “but it’s rewarding when you’re helping someone personally”. In family law, every case is personal – if the opportunity is there to help bring a child home, it may be more than just a career highlight to know that you can make a positive difference to peoples’ lives. “Every client I see, I’m helping someone through a really difficult, stressful period and trying to resolve their situation, collaboratively where possible, fighting their corner where not, but always furthering their best interests.”
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